World Coins

Mysterious Chinese coin in Champion’s Macau auction: On the Block

A circa 1912 silver dollar pattern of Yuan Shi-Kai, the so-called Big Beard dollar, highlights Champion Auctions’ Dec. 6 sale in Macau.

All images courtesy of Champion Auctions.

One of the most mysterious of Chinese coins is the circa 1912 “Big Beard” dollar. What is mysterious about it is that experts don’t know for certain where or when it was made, who ordered it, or even who it depicts, according to Bruce W. Smith, writing in the auction catalog for Champion Coin Auctions’ Dec. 6 sale. 

The “Big Beard Dollar” highlights the sale, which is scheduled in Macau.

Research by Smith suggests the coin was struck at the Soochow (Suchou) Mint around 1912 and shows Yuan Shih-kai, the Chinese general who became the first president of the new Chinese Republic on Dec. 11, 1915.

The coin is similar to and copied from the Sun Yat-sen and Li Yuan-hung dollars made in 1912 for the establishment of the republic. In the center of the coin is a facing portrait of a bearded man, in a double circle. 

Other elements copy the 1911 Dragon dollar, which was struck at Tientsin, Wuchang and Nanking. Four Chinese characters appear at the top (Chung Hua Min Kuo), meaning “Republic of China,” and five characters (K’ai Kuo Chi Nien Pi) at the bottom, meaning “Coin Commemorating the Founding of the Country.” 

According to Smith, since the 1950s the “Big Beard” portrait has been incorrectly identified as depicting Ch’eng Te-ch’uan (usually but incorrectly written as Chin Teh-chuen), who was governor of Kiangsu Province during 1910 and 1911 under the Ch’ing dynasty government, and military governor of Kiangsu during 1911 to 1913 under the Republic. 

Calling that into question were the twin facts that mints in Soochow had not struck silver coins and no provincial governor issued coins with his own image until after Yuan Shih-kai died in 1916. 

Smith cites research published in a 1915 magazine that shows that one of the two mints in Soochow (one inside the city walls, one outside the walls) had prepared to make silver dollars in 1908, late in the reign of Manchu emperor Kuang Hsu (who ruled from 1875 to 1908). 

A medal with the Big Beard portrait was created in 1911 or 1912 at a refurnished Soochow Mint inside the city limits. 

A 1993 article by Ma Chuande, based on research by his father, Ma Dingxiang, showed that the portrait is actually of Yuan Shih-kai. 

Ma’s article in English appeared in the June 21, 1993, edition of World Coin News. 

Ma found two photographs of Governor Ch’eng taken around 1912 and the man in the photos does not look like the man on the coin. Ma also found a photograph of Yuan Shih-kai taken in early 1912 or probably slightly earlier. This photo shows an unshaven Yuan, like the portrait on the coin. Prior to 1912, Yuan was retired and, since he was not in active service, did not need to be clean shaven. 

According to Smith, “The portrait [on the coin], however, is poorly done, suggesting it was made at a minor mint, like Soochow, rather than a first rate mint like Nanking. No doubt this is why the coin was not produced in quantity.”

Several other possible mints were under control of rival forces or had been damaged during the war that led to the Republic’s founding, but Ch’eng, in Soochow, was a supporter of Yuan, “and this is probably why the coin was made there,” Smith surmises.

The coin is graded About Uncirculated 58 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. and has an estimate of $180,000 to $360,000. 

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